From world-famous national parks to little-known private reserves, Alex Robinson picks out six of the best places for wildlife-spotting in Costa Rica.

Few countries can rival Costa Rica for wildlife and natural beauty. Fuming volcanoes lush with cloud forest rise into high, serrated sierra; valleys swathed in lowland tropical rainforests plunge to twin Pacific and Atlantic coasts; and the ocean is fringed with broad sandy beaches. Despite covering just 0.01 percent of the Earth’s surface, the country is home to 4 percent of the planet’s terrestrial species. Wildlife-spotting opportunities abound, from tracking toucans, great green macaws and jaguars in the rainforest to watching turtles hatch on the beaches by moonlight.

For turtle-watching: Tortuguero

The extensive Parque Nacional Tortuguero protects 19,000 hectares of lowland forest, mangroves and tropical beaches on Costa Rica’s northern Atlantic coast. It’s a key biological corridor between North and South America, a breeding ground for myriad fish species – including bull and hammerhead sharks – and a refuge for jaguar, spectacled caiman, tapir, green macaws and three monkey species. Yet the park is perhaps best known as one of the best places in the world to see turtles. Giant leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles hatch here and the beach is also one of the most important nesting sites for the endangered green turtle in the Western Hemisphere. Come between July and October to see the turtles arrive to lay their eggs, and in November to December to see the hatchlings emerge from their nests. 


Image by Alex Robinson

For a mountain escape: Guanacaste

In the highlands of Guanacaste in Costa Rica’s Pacific north, smoking mountains lord over a boulder-strewn landscape carpeted with low trees and bushes. Come here to spot armadillos, anteaters and coyotes, who hunt the ridges and rocky hills in small bands, calling eerily to each other at night. There’s no better time to visit than between January and April, when the sizzling dry season sets in and the trees shed their leaves and burst into brilliant flower. As for accommodation, one of the most interesting places to stay is Rio Perdido, sited in a forested valley coursed by twin rivers – one cool and fresh, the other hot and steamy – which course down the slopes of the adjacent Miravalles volcano.

For pristine cloudforest: Monteverde

Dripping with bromeliads, mosses and lichens, veiled with gently swirling cloud and so quiet you can hear a falling water-drop, Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde feels like a sacred place. One of our 21 top sights in Costa Rica, it’s one of the few locations in Central America where you can see the resplendent quetzal – a spectacular, shimmering green and vermillion bird that drifts between the branches as silently as a falling feather. According to the Maya, the quetzal has a song so beautiful it lulls the listener into a trance, but the bird has been silent since the Spanish conquest and will only sing again when the Americas are free.

For rainforest adventures: Nicuesa Lodge

Wedged between steep-sided jungle-covered mountains and an emerald green lagoon in Golfo Dulce lies the 165-acre private preserve Playa Nicuesa Rainforest Lodge. This is the place to come for wildlife spotting in comfort. The cabins sit in a forest garden thick with heliconias and sweet-smelling ylang-ylang trees, and coatis, curassows and cackling scarlet macaws are among the daily visitors. There’s a wealth of activities on offer, too: kayaking through mangroves in search of crocodiles; snorkelling with tuna off the black-sand beach; and night safaris where you might spot puma padding along rainforest trails. The lodge has been awarded the highest possible ranking for conservational tourism under the government’s stringent monitoring scheme, so a stay here comes with a clean, green conscience.

For canopy tours: Mistico Hanging Bridges

Set in rich montane forest near Volcán Arenal, the Mistico Hanging Bridges reserve offers the chance to get close to birds and mammals in the forest canopy. Steep trails cutting up the sides of a vertiginous river valley lead to series of swinging rope and platform bridges, the highest of which literally offer a toucan’s eye view. As well as the chance to spot howler monkeys and tanagers, the bridges also provide great views of Arenal itself, which dominates the eastern horizon, its massive cone smoking into a cobalt blue sky speckled with soaring vultures.

For wildcats: the Península de Osa

Jutting into the inky Pacific and covered almost entirely by Central America’s last great Pacific tropical forest, the remote Península de Osa is one of Central America’s last great wild cat refuges. All of Costa Rica’s six cat species can be found here, together with the biggest mammal in tropical America, Baird’s tapir. Yet even in Osa, they are timid and hard to spot. For the best chance of a sighting, stay in one of the handful of forest lodges that fringe the 42,469 hectare Parque Nacional Corcovado, and take a dawn or dusk hike along one of the quieter trails. If you’re feeling really intrepid, you can even book a local guide and camp overnight under the giant Kapok trees in the heart of the park.

Alex travelled with Journey Latin America who offer a broad choice of wildlife and nature-based holidays in Costa Rica. Explore more of the country with the Rough Guide to Costa RicaBook hostels for your trip, compare flights, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

Find peace at Buddhist monastery, Nepal

Trim out the religious and/or mystical connotations and Buddhism boils down to something quite simple – brain training. Emptying your mind of white noise in the Buddhist manner – and thereby opening it up to richer focus and awareness – has never been easy. But the digital age is making it even harder, with an ever-billowing storm of information clamouring for our attention. So, retreat – a Tibetan Buddhist monastery might just be the perfect balm to your perpetually flicking and scrolling mind.

Get isolated at Three Camel Lodge, Mongolia

Travel to Three Camel Lodge in Mongolia, a country whose name is a byword for notions of the faraway, and you’ve already made a significant mental leap. You’re certainly not in Kansas anymore here – the nearest wifi is hundreds of miles away in the capital, Ulan Bator. The lodge lets you sample the nomadic lifestyle, except with all the hard bits removed and felt slippers thrown in. Expect snow leopards, bears and wild camels – who needs David Attenborough documentaries?

Stay with the Huaoranis in the Amazon, Ecuador

The Amazon river and its tributaries form one of the greatest natural networks of connectivity on the planet. Digitally speaking, however, it’s a total void. Arrange a stay with the Huaoranis of Ecuador for insights into their culture, from tracking in the rainforest to lessons in their language, which is said to be unrelated to any other on Earth.

Go wild camping in Sweden and Norway

Wifi is not such a rare amenity on campsites these days. But if you’re engaged in ‘wild camping’ – pitching your tent off-piste – then technology begins and ends at a rickety gas stove and a pack of AA batteries. In Norway and Sweden, wild camping is part of the national identity – and with landscapes ranging from the Arctic Circle to island-sprinkled archipelagos, there are myriad reasons to leave the glampsites behind.

Rub elbows with elephants at Jongomero camp, Tanzania

You’re enjoying a precious moment with a spindly dik dik in Ruaha National Park when all of a sudden: "BEEP BEEP, BEEP BEEP" goes your phone, the precious animal does a runner and your fellow safari guests make a mental note to blog about your appalling behaviour once reunited with their devices. Because they, unlike you, have respected this remote, luxurious southern Tanzanian camp’s requests that digital equipment be kept under lock and key for the duration of your visit.

Get deserted in the Cook Islands

That these fifteen South Pacific islands are named after legendary eighteenth-century explorer James Cook is a bit of a giveaway – they’re seriously remote. Rarotonga, the main island, is not overburdened with hi-tech distractions – one popular activity is "jetblasting" whereby you hang out near the airport’s runway and, well, get blasted by the displaced air from descending planes. Better, perhaps, to focus on enjoying the islands’ natural underwater beauty, from black pearl fields to coral lagoons.

Back to basics in a bothy, Northern Ireland

Cast yourself away – or rather, paddle yourself – to this restored stone cottage near Lisnaskea in County Fermanagh, part of the Lough Erne Canoe Trail. The bothy is neat but basic as can be, its list of mod cons beginning and ending at cold running water, a wood-burning stove and south-facing skylights. With life stripped back to the bare essentials, you’re left with the mental space to enjoy Upper Lough Erne’s tranquil bays and sprinkling of lush green islands.

Meet your ancestors at an archaeological dig

Get your hands dirty, cleanse your mind – that’s the basic idea here. A number of operators offer holidays based around archaeological digs, from Ethiopia to Uzbekistan – although you could always purchase the tools of the trade and go it alone. Beware, though: a metal detector’s seductive blipping might be hard to handle for those in technological cold turkey.

Delve into the Krubera Cave, Georgia

The status of the Marianas Trench as the planet’s deepest point is standard pub quiz fodder. But the earthbound equivalent is less well-known. The true vastness of Georgia’s Krubera Cave has only been fully realised since the turn of the twenty-first century, and it took a team of Ukrainian speleologists two weeks to reach the cave’s 2200m deepest point. Down here, you’re guaranteed friend requests from nothing but spiders, beetles and other creepy crawlies.

Cut off in Havana, Cuba

With patched-up old Buicks and Cadillacs stalking its capital’s streets like mechanical ghouls, the idea of Cuba as a time capsule is a familiar notion. What lies under the hood of those US classics is about as sophisticated as technology gets in Cuba – the country has the lowest rate of web access in the West, and what’s permitted is subject to heavy government regulation. Time to disengage the brain from all things digital and enjoy the city’s steamy charms.

Spend a week in Amish country, USA

In populated areas of the US it isn’t easy to escape the digital dimension. But the Amish – whose Mennonite ancestors came over to Pennsylvania from Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century – have long done a very efficient job of escaping the clutches of the modern world. In Lancaster County you can immerse yourself in their simple, rural way of life, where houses are not connected to the grid and travel is by horse-drawn buggy.

Get grounded in Bolivia’s salt flats

In one respect the Bolivian salt flats are money-spinningly hi-tech – beneath the white expanses lie the world’s largest reserves of lithium, used in battery manufacture. But that’s where links to the modern world end. Tours of the mind-bending salar are a Bolivian must-do and whichever accommodation you wind up in – freezing shack, luxury "salt palace" or Airstream caravan – the landscape utterly overwhelms and grounds you in the present moment.

Digital detox at Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, Canada

The internet has expanded at a terrifying rate since its inception, sure, but the Big Bang did it way bigger and way better. There’s nothing like getting out into the light pollution-free wilds and gazing up at giddying bucket-loads of stars to put you in your place. This ranch in British Columbia’s Cariboo region offers crystal-clear star-gazing allied to a digital detox programme – being reminded of your own puny insignificance never felt so good.

Surrender yourself in Chicago, USA

The "windy" of Chicago’s nickname actually refers to a certain loquaciousness associated with the city. But even here you can mute the world with the Monaco hotel’s "blackout" option, which encourages guests to hand in their devices on check-in. Be aware, however, that they also offer free wi-fi, so you can polish that halo even harder should you manage not to succumb.

Stay secluded in Butterfly Valley, Turkey

Somewhere along Turkey’s tourism-saturated Turquoise Coast, where holidaymakers are assured every home comfort, from full English breakfasts to free wi-fi, there’s an enclave of unplugged hippy-dom. Take a water taxi from Oludeniz (the "Blue Lagoon" in English, setting the evocatively back-to-nature tone) to the steep-sided, beach-fronted valley. You might still be able to data-roam, but listening to the crackle of evening bonfires or the strumming of acoustic guitars is far superior to the hum of social media.

Take a survival challenge on a Belize island

"I couldn’t survive without my phone." If you’re this digitally dependent, then perhaps it’s time you addressed your conception of the word "survive" – and that’s where getting shipwrecked on a desert island comes in. You’ll shell out for the privilege, of course, but before being left to your own devices on a Belize caye, the team will train you up and ensure you’re a budding Ray Mears. Fish gutting and fire building ahoy!

Stay in Skiary Lodge, Scotland

If you have ants in your social media pants, make for the unflappable stillness of Lough Hourn and let its tranquility wash over you. The most distracting thing you’re likely to encounter hereabouts is the otherworldly light – though climbing, swimming, seal-watching and star-gazing are all possibilities. This phone-, electrics- and internet-free lodge – two hours by car from Fort William, followed by a hike or a boat ride – is the only survivor from an abandoned fishing hamlet.

Explore Antarctica

Time is running out for Antarctica. And not (for now) in the way that you might think: rather it’s the region’s status as a communications black hole that’s most pressingly threatened. The urgency of the data being gathered in the region is forcing change, expediting improvements in Antarctica’s links to the wider world: "Antarctica Broadband" is on the horizon, promising "fast internet from the bottom of the earth". At least it’ll look impressive when you check in on Foursquare.

Ultima Thule Lodge, Alaska

An ancient term denoting hazily understood lands in the far north, "Ultima Thule" harks back to the early, "here be dragons" days of navigation. And while it’s certainly rugged out here, there’s no chance of it all going a bit Into the Wild, for this is Alaska deluxe – after being flown in, it’s chunky wood cabins, bearskin rugs and saunas all the way. And after an afternoon watching bears catch salmon, Candy Crush will seem a very sorry thing indeed.

Alex Robinson goes in search of the elusive jaguars that live in the Corcovado rainforest, Costa Rica

The Corcovado rainforest is eerily quiet. But for the buzz of cicadas that crescendos past like a wave every few minutes, it’s as silent as a cathedral. I can hear drops falling onto leaves, the burr of a hummingbird’s wings. Then a roar cracks the spell – deep and guttural, huge in the empty air. And my heart leaps into my throat. Adrenaline floods my veins. My hands shake. A panicked blur of thoughts rush into my mind. “It’s a jaguar. My God. And it’s close. Which way’s the wind blowing?”

Before arriving in Costa Rica I’d thought of jaguars as innocuous creatures. A kind of languorous leopard, spending most of its life draped across a log, bleary-eyed and half-asleep. But then I went to San José zoo and saw one in the flesh. Its paws rippled with as much muscle as a heavyweight boxer and its head was as big as mine. It looked at me with great green eyes, filled with contempt. ‘Just let me out,’ they goaded, ‘and we’ll see who’s the dominant species.’ Then it yawned and licked vast, razor sharp chops. ‘Jaguars’, said the plaque, next to the cage, ‘have the strongest bite of any big cat. They can crack a skull like an egg.’

And now one’s downwind of me. It can smell my fear. I lurch into action and run up the path, splashing through the mud, camera swinging madly, and nearly collide with Juan, the Lapa Rios eco-lodge guide. He’s looking through binoculars up into the trees with all the panic of a meditating monk.

Image by Alex Robinson

“You OK?” he asks, startled by my muddy appearance. “Jaguar!” I yelp, “Didn’t you hear it roar?” For a moment, he’s puzzled. Then his face splits into a grin. “No jaguar amigo! Ees a howler monkey.”

He points up into the canopy and hands me the binoculars, elegantly shifting the mood away from my flustered embarrassment. And I see the monkeys – a family of harmless-looking, Bournville-brown things, about the size of spaniels. They’re chewing leaves. “They made the roar?” I ask.

On the way back to Lapa Rios, Juan explains. Male howlers have a bark far worse than their bite. According to Juan, humans could learn a lot from them. Imagine, he says, if all we had to do to defend our territory was to gather battalions together at our borders and collectively yell at each other. Most howler battles amount only to this. They do come to blows, but only very, very rarely.

Image by Alex Robinson

As day drifts into twilight, the forest seems peaceful again. A brilliant blue morpho butterfly with wings as big as my hands floats past. The trees clear and I can see the white crests of waves splashing on the sand far below and the silhouetted shapes of swaying coconut palms. All is calm and beautiful and I muse on how privileged I am to be here – a little dot on the Osa peninsula, a thumb-shaped wedge of rainforest fringed on all sides by magnificent beaches and so remote it’s easier to fly here. The Osa is one of the last great islands of biodiversity in Central America and a success story for ecotourism. The region depends on lodges like Lapa Rios – my tourist money funds a local school, recycling programmes for lodge itself and the beaches and gives people like Juan a job. Juan is a guide. But his father was a hunter.

We reach the lodge as bats fill the air, whirring past as they chase insects. Coatis chatter in the bushes and a startled nightjar whips up from the path in front of us, swirling and swooping into the night. The dining room is a warm orange glow under the palm-thatch, the path to the rooms – which are perched on wooden stilts overlooking the Pacific – is lit with soft-white fairy lights. I’ve only been away on my hike for a few hours, but I feel like an intrepid explorer on a long awaited homecoming.

I shower, eat a delicious meal of lemon-marinated sea bream, washed down with ice-cold Argentinean Sauvignon Blanc and drift off to the music of the forest. There are jaguars out there somewhere. Thank God. Still thriving in this remote and beautiful corner of Costa Rica. I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad that seeing them is so hard. Tomorrow will be another sparkling bright sunny day, and a new adventure. I’ll be learning to surf those creamy Pacific waves. And hoping I don’t embarrass myself again – with fears about imaginary sharks.

Follow Alex Robinson on his website and on Alex Robinson Photographer. The Osa Peninsula can be visited with Journey Latin America on their Costa Rica Wildlife Holiday. Explore more of Costa Rica with the Rough Guide to Costa Rica. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go. 

From ancient ruins to beautiful beaches, Cyprus has a multitude of incredible things to see and do. Whether you’re after a challenging hike, fancy some wildlife spotting or want to go diving, this sun-kissed country will deliver. Here are our top things not to miss in Cyprus.

The Wolverine, Canada

Put aside all images of Hugh Jackman in X Men: a wolverine is the largest member of the weasel family, though it looks more like a small bear. Most notable about wolverines is their strength – far greater than expected for an animal of its size – and though they can be found in considerable numbers in northern Canada, Alaska and Scandinavia, their prized fur has over the years made them a prime target for hunters.

The African wild dog, Kenya

Though once common throughout the Maasai Mara, the African wild dog is now one of the most endangered mammals in the world, with less than 5500 thought to remain in the wild. Concerted conservation efforts have meant that there are now more than three hundred of these large canines living on the Laikipia plateau in Kenya, though the vastness of the area and their excellent camouflage against the savanna plains ensures that a sighting remains tricky.

White lions, South Africa

Essentially the same as the African lion in all but colour (caused by a recessive gene), white lions are indigenous to South Africa’s Timbavati region, in the northeast of the country. Removed from the wild because they were thought to be bad hunters, white lions were reintroduced to their natural habitat in 2009, though you’re unfortunately far more likely to see one in a zoo than you are in Timbavati.

The Tapir, Indonesia

Despite being most closely related to horses and rhinoceroses, tapirs look more like pigs with their stocky, rounded shape, though their short trunk gives them something of a comical appearance. Generally living in forested areas in Central and South America and Asia (the Malayan tapir is especially distinctive for its white hindquarters), these shy, somewhat cumbersome herbivores are surprisingly agile swimmers and at their most graceful in the water.

Snow leopards, Uzbekistan

These graceful, pale cats – smaller than other big cats – are perfectly adapted to their cold, inhospitable mountain home. Their thick fur and stocky build helps them to keep warm in the freezing temperatures, and their colouring ensures they’re perfectly hidden against their surroundings. Found from southern Siberia down through Uzbekistan, eastern Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and the highest altitudes of the Himalayas, the inaccessibility of these regions contributes to the rarity of sightings.

The siberian tiger, Russia

The world’s largest cat, the Siberian tiger’s solo lifestyle and camouflaging coat – not to mention the harshness of their environment – make them incredibly hard to spot in their natural habitat. Largely found in Russia’s Sikhote-Alin mountains, some 900km northeast of Vladivostok, there are only around five hundred of these striking animals left in the wild; unfortunately, the continued demand for tiger products means that these big cats remain endangered.

The Ocelot, Brazil

Closely resembling a domestic cat in size, the ocelot’s striking leopard-like fur provides excellent camouflage in its rainforest home. Living extensively across South America – and as far north as Texas – they stalk monkeys and birds from up in the trees, using their sharp fangs to finish off their prey.

Oncilla, Costa Rica

Closely related to – but smaller than – the ocelot, oncillas are found in Costa Rica and parts of South America, and are also known as the "tiger cat". Largely nocturnal, these undeniably cute wild cats are excellent climbers but live on the ground in tropical forests; they require meat for their survival, feeding on small mammals, birds and lizards.

The Nightjar, UK

Only present in the UK during late spring and summer, the nocturnal nightjar has a mythical reputation for sucking milk from goats. Their dull, brown mottled colouring ensures that they stay well hidden during the day – the first sign that one is nearby is likely to be the male’s song, most commonly heard around dusk on quiet, warm summer evenings.

Mountain Gorillas, Rwanda

It’s hard to believe that an animal this size can be elusive, but these surprisingly shy, gentle giants can be incredibly tricky to find in the wild. Spotting a mountain gorilla – living in parts of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – involves long, often difficult, treks into the dense vegetation; though they are largely ground dwelling, the primates move around frequently which makes them difficult to track down.

The Kermode Bear, Canada

Living in Canada’s British Columbia, the Kermode bear is a sub-species of the American black bear that is notable for their distinctive white fur. Their unusual colouring makes for the perfect camouflage when catching fish – as a result they’re more successful at doing so than their black-furred relatives. Uninhabited Princess Royal Island is home to the greatest density of the bears – though as one of the largest temperate rainforests in the world, your chances of spotting one are slim.

Guinea baboons, Guinea

The smallest of the baboon species, Guinea baboons live in groups of up to two hundred; highly communicative creatures, you’re far more likely to hear them than to see them. These reddish-brown baboons aren’t particularly speedy climbers, so they tend to stick to the treetops rather than risk the forest floor; they live in just a small area of West Africa, including (unsurprisingly) Guinea, as well as Gambia and Senegal.

Giant pandas, China

Undoubtedly one of the world’s most distinctive mammals, the giant panda is native to south central China, particularly Sichuan, and it’s thought that there are fewer that 1600 left in the wild. With a diet made up almost entirely of bamboo, they have to consume up to a whopping 38kg of the plant a day. Unfortunately, they’re so hard to spot that your best chance of seeing one is in a wildlife centre or zoo.

Grey wolves, USA

Forget all images of the Big Bad Wolf of your childhood – in reality, grey wolves are surprisingly shy. Though once common throughout northern Europe and North America, wolves were brought close to extinction by the 1960s. Now, in pockets of the US – notably Yellowstone Park – they have been successfully reintroduced, in part to balance out the eco-system, but spotting them still requires some dedication and persistence.

Golden eagles, UK

With just 440 pairs breeding in the UK, the golden eagle is one of the most striking but most difficult to spot birds in the country. These majestic animals, boasting a wingspan of over two metres, can be found – if you’re lucky – soaring over Scottish moorland and mountains. Spotting one requires a combination of luck, the right weather, and an understanding of the bird’s habitat – the Isle of Skye is arguably the best place to spot them.

The black panther, Kenya

Not the separate species of cat its name suggests, black panthers are in fact leopards (in Africa and Asia) and jaguars (in the Americas), their colouring coming from excess melanin in their coats. As a result, they’re incredibly uncommon, and it’s very unlikely that you’d get to see one in the wild – Kenya, notably Mount Kenya and Aberdare National Park, is your best bet.

The African black-footed cat, Botswana

It seems unlikely that the small, domestic-sized African black-footed cat should survive on the deserts of southern Africa that are home to much larger predators and yet, it does – the San people call it the "anthill lion" due to its courage. These solitary, nocturnal animals live under cover, making them notoriously difficult to spot, and they hunt small animals, including even bigger Cape hares.

Badgers, UK

Despite feeling like a quintessential British animal, in the UK you’re more likely to see one of these nocturnal creatures as roadkill than alive. Considering that much of their lives are lived out underground – badger setts are composed of a network of tunnels that are handed down from generation to generation and can be centuries old – this is hardly surprising, though many of the bumps you’ll come across in UK woodland are the result of their excellent digging skills.

The Aardvark, Namibia

Native to sub-Saharan Africa, the aardvark is also known as the African antbear, in reference to its diet of ants and termites. Living in underground burrows, nocturnal and largely solitary, they’re not a major fixture on game-spotting safaris because they can be so hard to find. The name "aardvark" comes from early Afrikaans meaning "earth pig" – surprisingly, however, they’re more closely related to elephants than they are to pigs.

The Pangolin, South Africa

Looking like something out of a science-fiction film, pangolin – also known as "scaly anteater" – are quite hard to believe on first sight. Found in both Africa and Asia, they are covered in hard, overlapping scales and roll themselves up into a ball when threatened, emitting a rather noxious smell. A combination of being nocturnal and prized for their meat – demand for which is unfortunately growing in Asia – makes them incredibly hard to see in the wild.

Spiny Forest, Madagascar

On an island filled with weird and wonderful living things, the spiny forest has to be Madagascar‘s most unusual ecosystem. Endemic to the south of the island, the forest is distinguished by tall, virtually branchless plants with dagger-like spikes, and dumpy succulents with swollen trunks. Elegant sifaka lemurs leap from tree to tree with ease, effortlessly avoiding the lethal thorns.

Sikkim Pine Forests, India

Squeezed into a cosy nook between its neighbours Nepal, China and Bhutan, the mountainous ex-kingdom of Sikkim is India‘s greenest state; a thick carpet of pine forest covers much of this mysterious Himalayan region. Cloaked in cloud for much of the year the moist canopy is dripping with epiphytes and beautiful wild orchids. Believed to be the stomping ground of the mythical yeti, other inhabitants include cute red pandas and shy clouded leopards.

The Amazon Rainforest, South America

The granddaddy of all rainforests, the Amazon is the largest and most biodiverse tropical forest on Earth. Giant anteaters, pink dolphins and jaguars all make the trees and rivers here their home, though many of the plant and animal species are still unknown. It is culturally diverse too: home to over 300,000 indigenous people, some still uncontacted, speaking over two hundred languages. The Brazilian Amazon even has its own world-famous opera house, in the humid city of Manaus.

Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont, USA

Few natural spectacles are as striking as the Vermont fall foliage season (from mid-September to October). The air is crisp, plump apples hang heavy on the branches and maple, poplar and birch trees turn brilliant shades of crimson, amber and gold. Widely considered the region’s best area for leaf-peeping, Green Mountain National Forest is right in the heart of the action. Leaves change colour from north to south; check www.yankeefoliage.com before heading out.

Redwood National Park, USA

Next time you complain that you feel old, spare a though for the giant redwood trees of foggy northern California, which can live for over 2000 years. Redwood National Park’s Hyperion tree is also the world’s tallest. With its head firmly in the clouds, it’s bigger than many skyscrapers, at 379.1ft, and a relative teenager at between 700 and 800 years-old. Hyperion’s exact location is known only to scientists, but you can still try and hug many of the park’s other giants.

Bellavista Cloudforest, Ecuador

Damp, green, vibrant and extraordinarily beautiful, Ecuador‘s Bellavista cloudforest, high in the Western Andes, feels like the prehistoric habitat of dinosaurs. Veined by silvery waterfalls, the mountains are shrouded in heavy mist for at least part of each day, and covered in mosses, bromeliads and orchids. The forest’s primary attraction is the superb birdlife: there are well over 300 species here, including the masked trogon, tanager-finch, moustached antpitta, plate-billed mountain toucan and countless hummingbirds.

Caledonian Forest, Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

The largest mountainscape in the UK, Cairngorms National Park also contains a quarter of Scotland‘s remaining ancient Caledonian forest. Once the domain of brown bears and wolves, the native woodland was largely destroyed by climate change and hordes of Vikings, among other foes. Alpha predators no longer roam the forest, but the remaining Scots pines are home to rare red squirrels, capercaillie, beavers and ospreys.

Rainbow Eucalyptus Forest, Maui, Hawaii

It’s hard to keep your eyes on the tarmac as your cruise Maui‘s Hana Highway – all along the roadside are stunning groves of Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. As the name would suggest, the tree’s bark peels off in summer to reveal beautiful traffic-light-coloured ribbons of red, amber and green. The view is even more stunning when the tree trunks get wet from the rain, making the colours really pop.

Saguaro Cactus Forest, Saguaro National Park, USA

The largest cactus species in the USA, the unmistakable forked arms of the saguaro give it the “hands-up” appearance of a startled shopkeeper at a Wild West hold-up. Protecting part of the Sonoran Desert, Saguaro National Park is the best place to see these iconic cacti en masse. Standing up to 50ft-tall and with a lifespan of 200 years, many of the best specimens are micro-chipped against poachers.

The Black Forest, Germany

Home of the cuckoo clock and source of the celebrated Danube River, the Black Forest, stretching 170km north to south, and up to 6km east to west, is Germany‘s largest and most beautiful forest: so good they named a cake after it. The endless pine trees were once an eerie wilderness – a refuge for boars and bandits – but nowadays the region and its spa towns are much easier to visit.

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Japan

West of Kyoto lies the pleasant, leafy suburb of Arashiyama. Originally a place for imperial relaxation away from the main court in central Kyoto, the palaces were later converted into Buddhist temples and monasteries. Modern-day visitors come here to explore these temples and the area’s stunning bamboo grove. A well-constructed trail meanders its way through the statuesque green trunks, which sigh and whisper in the wind.

Waipoua Forest, New Zealand

Standing tall and strong as Maori warriors, New Zealand‘s kauri trees are a sight to behold. Once felled sustainably for boat materials and gum by the Maori, the kauri suffered huge deforestation at the hands of European settlers. Waipoua is one of the country’s best-preserved pockets of kauri woodland. It’s also home to its mightiest tree, the 2000-year-old Tane Mahuta, or “God of the Forest” – a vast wall of bark 6m wide rising nearly 18m to the lowest branches, which are covered in epiphytes.

Tijuca National Park, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The mountains running southwest of Rio’s Sugar Loaf mountain are blanketed with tropical trees. This is the Parque Nacional da Tijuca, a man-made urban forest of some 120 square kilometres. The original trees here were cut down for hardwood, but the area was re-afforested between 1857 and 1870 to reduce landslides. Now home to reptiles, ocelots, howler monkeys, agoutis, three-toed sloths and myriad birdlife, many believe that Tijuca is the world’s largest urban forest.

The Sundarbans, India & Bangladesh

The muddy and mysterious tidal waterways and mudflats of the Sundarbans comprise the largest mangrove forest in the world. Slinking with ease between the tangled vegetation and labyrinthine islands, there is a large population of handsome Bengal tigers here who pay no regard for the international border between India and Bangladesh. Resolutely wild and untamed, despite being sandwiched between two of the world’s most populated countries, crocodiles, pythons and Ganges river dolphins are also resident here.

Taman Negara, Malaysia

Quite possibly the oldest rainforest in the world, a visit to Taman Negara is unforgettable. Listen to the cacophony of insect chirps, marvel at giant buttressed tree roots and peer into the understory of palms, luminous fungi, giant bamboo and odorous giant rafflesia flowers. You don’t have to go far to encounter the local wildlife either; leopards, rhinos, monkeys, Asian elephants, tapirs, mouse deer and a host of smaller creatures can be found amongst the tangled foliage.

Giant Kelp Forests, Monterey Bay, USA

A mermaid’s paradise, the giant kelp forests of California‘s Monterey Bay have an otherworldly beauty. The kelp enjoys the cool nutrient rich waters in these parts and forms an underwater cityscape for its aquatic residents, growing up to 175-feet-tall in places. Small air-filled bladders keep each frond afloat, providing rockfish, leopard sharks and sea otters with an anchor during storms, and a place to hide from predators.

West Papua Jungle, Indonesia

The jungle hereabouts is humid, muggy, dense and very hard to access; it’s easy to see why its inhabitants went completely un-contacted until the 1970s. The indigenous Korowai people give a whole new meaning to the phrase high-rise living. They have adapted to this extreme environment by building their homes over 100ft up into the treetops, well away from the forest’s vicious mosquitoes. Each house is shared by up to a dozen people and access is via a long series of spindly ladders.

Cork Oak Forests, Alentejo, Portugal

The wide, sparsely populated plains of Alentejo are dominated by vast forests of bushy cork oak trees. The crooked oaks live for up to 25 years, and every nine years their bark is stripped and harvested to make the corks we use in our wine bottles. With the advent of new bottle-corking materials, these woodlands and their resident wild cats, boar, storks and vultures are at serious risk of deforestation and habitat loss.

Azrou Cedar Forest, Morocco

The high altitude evergreen cedar forests around Azrou shelter several troupes of Barbary apes, one of the wildlife highlights of a visit to Morocco. They roam the forest Planet of the Apes-style in troupes of up to a hundred monkeys. The cedars themselves can lives for over 400 years and grow an impressive 200ft tall, with an attractive canopy of bluish needles. You’ll find a Christmassy mix of juniper, holly and fir trees growing on the forest floor.

From a deserted town to enormous sand dunes and sunset cocktails above the city, here are ten unforgettable things to see and do in Namibia.

Hike Fish River Canyon

Second only in size to America’s Grand Canyon, Namibia’s Fish River Canyon is one of Africa’s unsung wonders. Starting just south of Seeheim, it winds 161km south to Ais-Ais and plummets to depths of 550 metres. Watching the sun rise and set over its layers of sandstone and lava is epic, but fit travellers can up the adventure by attempting one of southern Africa’s greatest hikes: a 85km five-day trek along the riverbed. Talk about off the beaten track.

Explore the deserted diamond-mining town of Kolmanskop

Rise early and drive 10km east of port town Lüderitz to watch the first fingers of sunrise reach across the desert and light up the sands that have piled up high and inhabited every nook of this once-thriving town. The honey-toned beams reveal peeling wallpaper in empty kitchens, ceramic bathtubs waiting forlornly for a filling and empty picture frames dangling from unsteady nails. Pay a little more for a photography pass: it allows you to enter early and beat the tour-group crowds so you can explore this ghost town with soul in peace.

Slurp local oysters in Walvis Bay

Forget springbok steak or biltong, Namibia’s culinary highlight is its homegrown ultra-fresh oysters. Thanks to the cold Benguela current that sweeps up the coast from Antarctica, the nutrient-rich waters means these pearly beauties can be harvested in just eight months instead of the three years it takes to grow French oysters. Join a boat tour to visit the nurseries and nibble them onboard, or order a platter with a glass of chilled white wine at a dockside restaurant.

Climb Sossusvlei

Namibia’s foremost attraction doesn’t disappoint. The sand dunes inside Namib-Naukluft National Park are some of the highest in the world and seeing them light up at sunrise is a sight that shouldn’t be missed. Sossusvlei is in fact only one dune, but the name is often used to collectively describe a handful of others. The most photogenic are the 170 metre-high Dune 45 and Deadvlei, whose dried up clay basin is punctuated with the sculptural silhouettes of long-dead acacia trees.

Explore the remote Caprivi Strip

Few tourists venture northwards to visit this narrow finger of lush land that juts out into Botswana, Zambia and Angola – those that do will be rewarded. The landscape is dotted with rondavel huts, roadside stalls selling fruit, and women in colourful clothes going about their daily business. Plus, two of the region’s national parks – Mamili and Mudumu – are becoming good safari destinations.

Safari in style inside Etosha National Park

Etosha translates as “Great White Place” – an apt description for this endless pan of silvery salt-encrusted sand, which is all that remains of a large inland lake that stood here 12 million years ago. Come dry season, its southern waterholes attract elephant, giraffe, zebra, eland, blue wildebeest, thousand-strong herds of springbok, and even the endangered black rhinoceros. A handful of luxury resorts have views over the pan, so the game viewing can continue long into the night.

Meet the Himba in Kunene

The barren, mountainous landscapes of the northern Kunene region are home to the Himba people – a semi-nomadic, polygamous tribe famed for wearing ochre-stained dreads and copper-wire bracelets. A number of tour companies will run visits to traditional villages, but a more rewarding (and perhaps ethical) way to meet the Himba is to base yourself in Opuwo, a vibrant little town, and wander for more candid interaction with the locals. From here you can also organise visits to Epupa falls.

Feed cheetahs in the Kalahari

Seeing wild cheetahs on safari is unforgettable, but at times viewings are no more than a glimpse of spots. For an up-close encounter, book to stay at Bagatella Kalahari Game Ranch: attached to the property is a 12-hectare enclosure belonging to the Cheetah Conservation Fund and it’s home to three orphaned cheetahs – Etosha, Rolf and Tuono – that are being rehabilitated for release. Seated safely aboard an open-sided Jeep, you can watch their caretaker dole out the evening feed (four kilos of meat each) then enjoy a sundowner atop the famous red dunes.

Find shipwrecks on the Skeleton Coast

This otherworldly strip of coastline earned its named from the treacherous fogs and strong currents that forced many ships onto its uncharted sands. Hemmed in by the high, searing dunes of the Namib Desert and lack of fresh water many sailors perished here. Explore the rusted hulls of stranded ships, marooned whale ribs and kilometre-long stinky seal colonies.

Party on the roof in Windhoek

Namibia’s capital is a city on the move. Take in the sights while sipping a cocktail and watching the sunset at the brand-new Hilton hotel’s Skybar – a rooftop bar complete with heated infinity pool and panoramic vistas overlooking Independence Avenue and the Supreme Court. It’s the perfect way to toast your Namibian adventure.

Get more inspiration from Rough Guides here. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

Most visitors don’t venture beyond Tallinn, but leave Estonia’s capital behind and you’ll find a country of vast, untouched wilderness. a haven for wildlife and a place to escape from it all. Olivia Rawes gets back to basics to discover some of the wilder things to do in Estonia.

A congregation of jovial boozy stag parties cavorted along the aisle as our flight approached Tallinn. Wild yes – and with its fair share of animals – but not quite the wilderness I was seeking. Despite Tallinn’s status as a favourite stag do (bachelor party) haunt, the Estonia I was to discover had far more to offer than a boozy night out in a dinosaur outfit. In fact, it’s Estonia’s palpable wilderness, so highly prized by the locals, that draws many visitors here; it’s a country of expansive space, abundant wildlife and a sense of pristine isolation.

A quarter of Estonia is a designated nature reserve; seemingly endless stretches of bogs and meadows are interspersed with woodlands, which themselves cover half of the country and provide a haven for wolves, bears, lynxes and wild boars. Marshes and bogs envelope a quarter of the land, and are important nesting grounds and popular stop-over points for migrant birds. Combine that with a population of 1.3 million people spread across a country of 45,227 square kilometres and you begin to understand the extent of land left to its natural devices.

It was this sense of space and remoteness that first struck me when we went seal watching from Haabneeme, on Estonia’s northern coast. To the northwest, the country stretches out to meet the Baltic sea and the coastline is peppered with 1500 islands, many of which are uninhabited. One man lives alone on Aski island, while a number of mainland Estonians apply to be island guards in their holidays, staying for short stints to keep an eye on things.

Our destination was Malusi island, a protected breeding ground for seals; of the 30,000 grey seals that live in the Baltic Sea, around 300 can be found at Malusi. Drifting alone in the placid waters, the tranquillity was only interrupted by our boat’s iPod, which blasted out jolly leelo folk songs and catchy pop tunes, a bizarre yet effective way of attracting the seals. The Estonians discovered that seals loved music in the 1920s when violin-playing traders realised their boats were being followed by these curious critters. It appears that seals are not only curious but also cultured – Beethoven was a firm favourite on our trip.

But isolation and peace were not only to be found when floating alone at sea. Our next stop was Sooma, Estonia’s second largest national park, an area of rivers, brooks, bogs and woodland, that’s home to 185 species of bird including golden eagles, owls and storks, as well as a number of mammals. From a viewing tower we surveyed the park; reminiscent of an African savannah, the expanse of flat land below us stretched seemingly to the horizon, a mix of grasses and mosses in hues of rusty red, bleached beige and earthy brown, fringed on one side by tall forest. Streams cut across a landscape pockmarked with small lakes and dotted with ancient, stunted, spindly trees, that despite being 200 or so years old stretched only to waist height. Keen to explore, we donned our bog shoes; these strange pointy flippers are an essential to avoid sinking in the quagmire.

Feeling the height of fashion we waddled across the spongy wetlands bouncing on the oddly marshmallow-like mounds of earth and despite having become strangely fond of our new giant feet we swapped them for canoes to row down the slowly meandering Riisa River. The waters were low this year, restricting the canoes to rivers and streams; however, Sooma is famous for its great floods, a springtime phenomenon, where the water level rises up to four metres, creating what the Estonians refer to as the “fifth season”, when much of the park is under water, making it possible to canoe through flooded meadows and magical, waterlogged forests.

For all its pristine wilderness, Estonia is not all about the rural outdoors. Much to my relief, after a day battling bogs, rivers and seas, there was no shortage of comfort and style when it came to putting our feet up to refuel. And what better place for it than Pärnu, a favourite destination for spa retreats that has also repeatedly received the title of Estonia’s “summer capital”? A charming city of wide streets lined with pretty wooden houses, cocooned by a stretch of long, white sandy beach, which – as it was out of season – we found to be perfectly empty.  After roaming the quiet streets, we checked into Frost Boutique Hotel, a cosy yet achingly stylish place; in my room distressed-wood white-washed beams held up a lofty ceiling, plump pillows and a taupe crushed velvet bedspread transformed my bed into what felt like sleeping on a cloud, and downstairs a roaring fire and large flickering candles tricked us into whiling away the evening lounging with a glass of wine.

This sort of rustic charm meets Scando-cool seemed a theme in many of the hotels and restaurants we visited. A feeling that nature – pine wood furniture, washed-up shells, crackling fires and natural hues – was influencing the interiors. The food was a similarly intriguing mix that was inventive yet earthy, such as the intriguing basil ice cream at NOA, and ox with beetroot served with a surprisingly delicious moss at Cru. In most places we ate, what seemed to drive the meals was a pride in locally-sourced ingredients; organic produce in Estonia is not a trend but a core principle – many Estonians I spoke to still head to the forests to go mushroom foraging.

On our final day in Estonia, we returned to Tallinn to explore its UNESCO-listed old town. Set high above a medieval wall, it charms with its sloping cobbled streets, soft pastel painted buildings, red tiled rooftops, elegant spires and sweeping views across the city out to the harbour. That night, tucked away in Mull, a home restaurant decked out with kitsch style – the grandeur of candelabras and chandeliers gently offset by mismatched teacups and quirky trinkets – Tallinn felt worlds away from a stag party haunt and I realised that even in this bustling city, the sense of calmness and peace we had gained in Estonia remained.

Find out more about Estonia at visitestonia.com
Explore more of Estonia with the Rough Guide to Europe on a Budget. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.

West coast of Portugal

Neil McQuillian, Editor: This is a beautiful time of year for the Rota Vicentina, a network of walking trails on the west coast of Portugal’s Alentejo region. There’s an inland route – the Historical Way – but I’d plump for the sea-scraping Fishermen’s Trail: the cliff-top paths afford stunning ocean views; the shrubs and flowers are aromatic beyond belief; and the native storks should be returning from their winter holidays around now too.

New Orleans, USA

Eleanor Aldridge, Editor: Mardi Gras might be over, but that’s all the more reason to make a trip down south. Louisiana’s capital is at its most entrancing when things quieten down. Take your time soaking up the faded beauty of the French Quarter’s backstreets before heading to Frenchmen Street for a night of live jazz and cocktails.

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Helen Abramson, Editor: Amsterdam really comes to life in the spring, as cafés and bars spread out over the cobbled streets. Get to know the city’s ins and outs in a canal-boat ride, or take a trip to the unforgettable Keukenhof garden, 25km out of town, where tulips bloom in spectacular colours from late-March to mid-May.

Wye Valley, Wales

Neil McQuillian, Editor: This Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has never wanted for visitors, and for good reason. The river itself is fantastic for canoeing and kayaking, while your inner twitcher will rejoice at the sight of the gorgeously flecked goshawk engaging in its so-called ‘sky dance’, a mate-attracting display of flying prowess that is a spring (and late-winter) phenomenon.

The Romantic Road, Germany

Rachel Mills, Editor: Travelled on foot, by bike or car, the scenic 400km Romantische Strasse from Würzburg to Füssen takes in medieval walled towns, traditional villages with half-timbered houses, vineyards and the fairytale castle of Neuschwanstein. This picture perfect route through Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg was created to attract visitors after WWII – more than sixty years later it’s hugely popular and often overrun by the summer months.

Cornwall, England

Becca Hallett, Editorial Assistant: Cornwall has plenty of activities to help burn off all the delicious seasonal food available, like a wander among blooming flowers on the moors, or a dip in the sea if you’re brave (or mad). If there are a few spring storms, all the better – the waves make for an incredibly dramatic scene.

Barcelona, Spain

Andy Turner, Senior Editor: Looking like a kids’ lego experiment, the spanking new Disseny Hub arts centre in Barcelona brings four museums under one roof and is set to open its doors this Spring. After all that culture grab a burger at Makamaka, a beach cafe where Hawaii meets Catalonia.

The Loire Valley, France

Eleanor Aldridge, Editor: The Loire’s sleepy villages are just shaking off their winter chill around now, while out in the vineyards buds are starting to burst and wildflowers are cropping up along the riverside. Whether you’re in search of the most memorable cuvée or the most magnificent château, spring’s a great time to come.

Essaouira, Morocco

Lottie Gross, Web Editorial Assistant: For active types, this popular eighteenth century port makes for a perfect long weekend getaway in spring. With pleasant temperatures and the high winds – locally known as the "alizee" – it’s the prime location for windsurfing and kitesurfing along Morocco’s Atlantic coast. And if you’re not drawn to the waters, you can enjoy afternoons strolling past the whitewashed and blue-shuttered houses, nipping into art galleries and sipping on mint tea.

Mt. Yoshino, Japan

Olivia Rawes, Editor: As Hanami (blossom-viewing parties) take over Japan each spring, crowds flock to Mount Yoshino for what is undoubtedly one of nature’s loveliest vistas; the ancient mountainsides fleetingly awash with clouds of delicate pink and white Sakura buds. Bag yourself a place early and expect sake, picnics and much merriment.

Montréal, Canada

Becca Hallett, Editorial Assistant: Montréal is beautiful at this time of year; as the snow melts off the roofs of its technicolour houses, everyone gets excited about the sunshine. Plus, you can officially indulge in as much maple syrup as you want – the locals call it "sugaring off".

Brittany, France

Tim Chester, Senior Web Editor: The jagged Brittany coastline is an immense place to explore at the best of times – full of secret coves, quiet beaches, and spots to sup cider and watch the world drift by – but in the springtime it blooms. Charter a boat and head to the Îles de Glénan for a spectacular display of colour.

Rovinj, Croatia

Andy Turner, Senior Editor: If you needed another excuse to visit Croatia this year, Rovinj, the pick of the resorts on the west coast, hosts the barnstorming Red Bull Air Race this April. Apart from the magnificent men in their flying machines, there’s plenty of chic hotels and Venetian architecture to enjoy.

Signs warning “Polar Bear Alert – Stop, don’t walk in this area” dot the city limits of Churchill, Manitoba. Beyond them lie wide expanses of the bleak and often frozen Hudson Bay or the treeless, endlessly flat tundra. It’s this location on the threshold of two forbidding environments that makes the town the unchallenged “polar bear capital of the world”.

Local polar bears spend most of their lives roaming the platform of ice covering Hudson Bay to hunt seals. But by July the ice melt forces the bears ashore to subsist on berries, lichen, seaweed, mosses and grasses. This brings the animals close to your doorstep; indeed, during the summer Churchill’s “Polar Bear Police” typically remove over a hundred bears from the town. It’s challenging and very dangerous work: although cuddly-looking, these creatures are also the largest land carnivores in existence. They can run at 50km/h and a single whack of their foot-wide clawed paws can kill. Being unaccustomed to humans, they’ll also quickly size you up as potential prey.

It’s better to wait until later in the year, and from the relative comfort of a tundra buggy (a converted bus that rides high above the ground on giant balloon tyres), to do your bear-watching. At the beginning of October, around two hundred polar bears gather near town to wait for the bay to freeze. With temperatures beginning to drop below zero and winds gusting up to 60km/h, the prime viewing season begins.

Lean and mean from the meagre summer diet male polar bears spend the autumn sparring with one another for hours, standing on their hind legs to launch fierce swipes and rather more gentlemanly (for a polar bear, anyway) chest-punches. Females steer clear of these shenanigans, particularly when with cubs, and spotting a mother lying back on a snowbank nursing her offspring – making tenderness and brute force temporary bedfellows – is a surprisingly touching scene.

Tundra buggy trips cost around C$80 per day, or you can book an all-inclusive five-day bear-spotting package with Wildlife Adventures – www.wildlifeadventures.com.

 

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